In a troubled economy, millions of unemployed U.S. workers (13.1 million to be more precise) have, through no fault of their own, lost their jobs and are justifiably grateful for the safety net known as unemployment insurance.
But who would have thought that, for a privileged few anyway, the public-sector safety net extends to those who are facing twin felony charges, have lied to their employer and have abused company equipment?
Such is the case with Ravi Shankar. No, not the legendary Indian sitar player, but the poet-in-residence at Central Connecticut State University.
By all accounts, Shankar, an associate professor of English at CCSU, is a terrific teacher who has inspired young people to be the best writers they can be. He chairs the Connecticut Young Writers Trust, where he has received glowing testimonials from founding chairman Andy Thibault.
But it looks like Shankar has set a very poor example for his students. He was suspended with pay and arrested last September on charges of ordering on a university computer $22,000 worth of tickets to a New Jersey soccer event, hoping that he could sell them off at a profit to cover more than $70,000 in debt, including $30,000 in stock trading losses.
When the scheme fell apart, according to a police affidavit, Shankar went to the cops in June and claimed he had only bought four tickets and that someone had stolen his Discover card to buy the thousands of dollars worth of extra passes.
And wait. It gets worse. After he admitted that he had bought all the tickets in an effort to scalp them, police learned that Shankar had falsely told a university IT specialist that the cops had recommended all his hard drives be wiped clean, leading to evidence-tampering charges — a felony in Connecticut.
Oh, and it gets even worse. In an unrelated incident, Shankar was arrested again a couple months ago in North Haven after he rear-ended a vehicle and fled the scene. So now the professor also faces charges of driving under the influence, evading responsibility and operating an uninsured motor vehicle. He has contested all the charges and remains free on $25,000 bond.
Meanwhile, a CCSU spokesman would only say that Shankar has been placed on paid administrative leave until his legal issues have been resolved, which could mean months or more of the state paying Shankar his $70,000 per year salary and health benefits for little or nothing in return. Why the university feels it cannot further discipline Shankar is beyond me. You don’t have to be a convicted criminal to be fired with cause. If, on top of the unproven criminal allegations, you misuse your employer’s office equipment in an attempt to commit a fraud and then lie to officials and attempt to obstruct the employer’s investigation, shouldn’t that be cause for termination?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the kind of job that allows me to survive that sort of mischief. I guess the denizens of The Academy play by different rules. A tenured professorship: nice gig if you can get it.
* * * * * *
For the last several days, the state’s print and electronic media have been hosting a war of words between the Malloy administration and critics who insist that new education commissioner Stefan Pryor has a conflict of interest because of his past associations with charter schools and a private company that manages them.
My colleague Jonathan Pelto has been hammering away at Pryor for his association with Achievement First, the charter school management company Pryor helped found and for which he served as a board member.
Charter schools are publicly funded niche schools that are operated independently and are partially exempt from certain regulations. Only half the faculty in Connecticut charter schools, for example, must hold standard certification. Many do not belong to labor unions.
Pelto’s point is that, since Pryor co-founded Achievement First and served as an unpaid volunteer on its board, he should recuse himself from taking part in deliberations on applications for charter schools from the company. I guess Pelto is concerned that Pryor cannot possibly be an impartial judge as to the merit of any application from Achievement First since he presumably has friends who are still on the board and he believes in the worthiness of the organization.
But as Pelto himself has acknowledged, the letter of the law essentially says that a conflict of interest occurs only if the public official or a member of his family benefits financially from the questionable association.
But as the state ethics office has confirmed, such is not the case with Pryor, so Pelto has decided to focus on the “appearance of a conflict of interest” — a much more nebulous and subjective argument and one for which the state does not have a legal definition.
I wouldn’t go so far as Gov. Malloy, who called the charges of a conflict “utterly and fantastically ridiculous.” There are some legitimate concerns that Pryor’s past associations might compel him to favor charter schools in general, but charges that he would favor Achievement First have a hollow ring.
One teachers union boss in Bridgeport, Gary Peluchette, might have stumbled onto the truth in assessing his opposition to Pryor: “The best commissioner is someone who has come up through the ranks of public education, not privately funded, non-union charter schools.”
That pretty much sums up the problem with education reform. There are powerful forces who want more of the same while expecting a better result. Right now, I’m on one knee doing my best impression of Tim Tebow, praying that the status-quo crowd will fail.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company.